Adventure Gamers Awards
Bloober Team, oh dear, sweet Bloober Team. Not only have you decided on a name that I cannot manage to read or say without chuckling, but your games have been some of the most difficult for me to evaluate in all my years writing for Adventure Gamers. I’ve spent more time erasing and rewriting large chunks of my Layers of Fear reviews than I typically spend doing a full write-up. In large part this is because these games are clearly the result of supremely talented developers chasing a strong vision and seemingly hitting the mark they were aiming for. The problem is, that mark often leaves me totally cold and I’ve struggled to put into words just why that is – and I’m not sure if there's anything more frustrating for a reviewer than not quite being able to express why you don’t like the end result.
The original Layers of Fear told the tale of a painter in Victorian England as he succumbed to a dark obsession with creating his masterpiece, a painting so disturbing it cost him his sanity and his family. The game consisted of a strictly linear series of set-pieces connected by corridors full of jump scares, spooky imagery, and disconnected scraps of dialogue that implied, rather than told, the story. The pacing was relentless, with nearly every room foisting a burst of paranormal activity and frights on the player, to the point where it became almost comically predictable. What started with so much promise ended up being deeply disappointing overall.
Then came >observer_, a cyberpunk mystery heavily inspired by Blade Runner, about a cybernetically enhanced detective with the ability to dive into people’s minds. Despite plenty of structural similarities to Layers of Fear, >observer_ turned the first game’s failures into strengths, telling a disturbing and visually exhilarating tale of a dystopian future where personal privacy has been thoroughly dismantled by the state. This time around, players were given characters and a world to latch onto, something that infused meaning into its lengthy wild “dream” sequences.
Given the dramatic improvement in >observer_, I approached Layers of Fear 2 with the cautious optimism that Bloober Team would take the lessons learned from their second game rather than revisiting the template of their first.
Alas, the sequel is in every way another Layers of Fear game. I could almost get away with reprinting my review of the first one and changing a few story details – the strengths are the same, my issues with it are identical, only the setting has changed. Leaving behind Victorian England and its unnamed mad painter, this game takes place on an unnamed Titanic-esque ocean liner and puts you in the shoes of an unnamed mad actor, preparing for a role in a new film helmed by an unnamed mad director. As you explore the vessel, you'll find that space, time, and reality warp and twist, sending you on a nightmarish theme park ride of the actor’s life as framed by horror cinema history.
The game is divided into five chapters, each of which consist mostly of walking forward through corridors as jump scares and surreal imagery are triggered by your presence. I mentioned a theme park ride because that is really what it feels like: things are happening around you, without your input, and with few exceptions there is an understanding that there are no real stakes. You might get splashed by some water or blasted by a fog machine, but you’ve got your seat belt on and nothing will actually hurt you. Don’t worry, it’s not real.
What that means here is that you’ll walk down a corridor, enter a room, then exit only to find yourself in that same corridor, only this time things are slightly rearranged. You walk past a door, it slams shut. You open it and there’s nothing inside the room. You walk to an intersection and see a mannequin around the corner, bathed in a mysterious light. A light flashes, and now the mannequin is posed differently.
Used sparingly, these kinds of events might ratchet up the tension and evoke the sense of otherworldly or sinister forces, but when the game throws this kind of thing at you relentlessly, without regard for the peaks and valleys of well-paced horror, it starts to become toothless, even nonsensical. It’s very hard to feel scared when there is no time either to build suspense or deal with any potential consequences.Continued on the next page...